It is not easy to know exactly what is going on in this poem, but I take it to be essentially a poem of yearning and alienation, by a man who has a foot in two worlds, human and preterhuman, but is not entirely at home in either – ‘neither outside nor in’. Clearly the poem focuses on an intense spiritual experience, though as often with Thomas it is hard to align this with the religious orthodoxy that might be expected given his calling as a parish priest. So he has no power to pray, and he acknowledges that the universe knows nothing of him and cares nothing for him – this is not your normal Sunday sermon material. I think Thomas’s problem is that while his vocation may commit him to the idea of a personal deity who looks out for us and listens to our prayers, his intellectual honesty compels him much more in the direction of the physicists’ god, of Einstein’s metaphorical ‘Old One’, the mysterious source of order in the universe, the elusive and uncaring creator of all those exquisite calibrations that underwrite our existence. The result in Thomas is a cognitive dissonance that is painful for him but fruitful for us when it results, as here, in a poem vibrant with a cold clarity and a passion that even unbelievers may bow to.
Do you want to know his name?
It is forgotten. Would you learn
what he was like? He was like
anyone else, a man with ears
and eyes. Be it sufficient
that in a church porch on an evening
in winter, the moon rising, the frost
sharp, he was driven
to his knees and for no reason
he knew. The cold came at him;
his breath was carved angularly
as the tombstones; an owl screamed.
He had no power to pray.
His back turned on the interior
he looked out on a universe
that was without knowledge
of him and kept his place
there for an hour on that lean
threshold, neither outside nor in.
The other day my wife and I were looking at our wedding photos from fifty-four years ago, and reflecting on the fact that most of the people in them are now dead. (So important to stay cheerful during lockdown…) Well, I suppose it is obvious that for most of us, if we live long enough, there comes a point at which, of all the people we have known in our lives, more are now dead than are still living – it just takes a photograph album to bring it home to one. And this in turn reminded me of this rueful poem by R.S.Thomas.
Note the scrupulously truthful ‘bandaged’ in the last stanza. Not a glib ‘healed’ – anyone who has lost a child or partner may tell you that not all wounds are healed by time. Just bandaged, covered, the way a smile may cover grief.
My father is dead.
I who am look at him
who is not, as once he
went looking for me
in the woman who was.
There are pictures
of the two of them, no
need of a third, hand
in hand, hearts willing
to be one but not three.
What does it mean
life? I am here I am
there. Look! Suddenly
the young tool in their hands
for hurting one another.
And the camera says:
Smile; there is no wound
time gives that is not bandaged
by time. And so they do the
three of them at me who weep.
I think it is possible for even R.S.Thomas’s greatest admirers, among whom I would certainly count myself, to become a little exasperated at his repetitive and somewhat one-sided conversations with God, and to want to quote the physicist Richard Feynman at him: ‘that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know.’ But in this serenely beautiful poem at least it appears that for once the divinity who so often eluded his questing search is present for him.
I often call there.
There are no poems in it
for me. But as a gesture
of independence of the speeding
traffic I am a part
of, I stop the car,
turn down the narrow path
to the river and enter
the church with its clear reflection
There are few services
now; the screen has nothing
to hide. Face to face
with no intermediary
between me and God, and only the water’s
quiet insistence on a time
older than man, I keep my eyes
open and am not dazzled,
so delicately does the light enter
my soul from the serene presence
that waits for me till I come next.
You don’t go to R.S.Thomas’s poems for consolation, but you do go to them for the quiet satisfaction of their craftsmanship, for their flow of images and metaphors, never imposed on the poem but coming from some deep well of devotion within it. The ‘bough of country’ here is the Lleyn peninsula in Wales, Thomas’s final home. ‘Subsong’ is birdsong that is softer and less well defined than the usual territorial song, a ‘quiet warbling’ used by some birds especially in courtship: wryly appropriate here given Thomas’s passion for birdwatching.
I have crawled out at last
far as I dare on to a bough
of country that is suspended
between sky and sea.
From what was I escaping?
There is a rare peace here
though the aeroplanes buzz me,
reminders of that abyss,
deeper than sea or sky, civilisation
could fall into. Strangers
advance, inching their way
out, so that the branch bends
further away from the scent
of the cloud blossom. Must
I console myself
with reflections? There are
times even the mirror
is misted as by one breathing
over my shoulder. Clinging
to my position, witnessing
the seasonal migrations,
I must try to content
myself with the perception
that love and truth have
no wings, but are resident
like me here, practising
their subsong quietly in the face
of the bitterest of winters.
One of R.S.Thomas’s very best, I think.
The View From The Window
Like a painting it is set before one,
But less brittle, ageless; these colours
Are renewed daily with variations
Of light and distance that no painter
Achieves or suggests. Then there is movement,
Change, as slowly the cloud bruises
Are healed by sunlight, or snow caps
A black mood; but gold at evening
To cheer the heart. All through history
The great brush has not rested,
Nor the paint dried; yet what eye,
Looking coolly, or, as we now,
Through tears’ lenses, ever saw
This work and it was not finished?
Time for another of my favourite R.S.Thomas poems: here is a poet who no longer has to strain for any kind of ornamentation, achieving his effects by apparently plain statement coupled with a mastery of cadence.
The old man comes out on the hill
and looks down to recall earlier days
in the valley. He sees the stream shine,
the church stand, hears the litter of
children’s voices. A chill in the flesh
tells him that death is not far off
now: it is the shadow under the great boughs
of life. His garden has herbs growing.
The kestrel goes by with fresh prey
in its claws. The wind scatters the scent
of wild beans. The tractor operates
on the earth’s body. His grandson is there
ploughing; his young wife fetches him
cakes and tea and a dark smile. It is well.
The Bright Field
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
One does not have to share R.S.Thomas’s sometimes slightly enigmatic theological preoccupations to find the best of his poems intensely moving in their grave reflectiveness. This one for me says so much about choice and sacrifice, and how difficult it can be for priest, poet or indeed anyone to live undistracted in the vision of the moment.